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17 October 2019

Has the EU really ruled out another Article 50 extension?

No. But Boris Johnson needs Labour MPs to believe it has.

By Patrick Maguire

Deal or no-deal: that’s the stark choice MPs will face when the Commons sits on Saturday if reports from Brussels are to be believed. Asked to rule out a further extension to Article 50 beyond 31 October, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: We have concluded a deal and so there is not an argument for the delay. It has to be done now…[Boris Johnson] and myself don’t think it’s possible to give another prolongation. There will be no other.

Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, has struck a similar note. “France said very clearly in the spring that we musn’t pursue these discussions after the end of October,” the French president has said. 

In appearing to rule out another extension, Juncker and Macron have created the cliff-edge scenario that the prime minister believes is necessary to deliver a majority – and particularly the Labour switchers that he will need in the absence of the DUP’s 10 votes. It has been dutifully reported to that effect, most notably by the BBC’s breaking news app. 

The problem for Johnson, however, is that the proposition is not as binary as he might like. As much as Juncker sounds like he is opposed to a further extension, it is not within the Commission’s gift to offer or reject one (and nor did he expressly rule it out). Rather it is the individual member states who will decide whether to accept or reject a request for an extension the government has committed to table under the terms of the Benn Act, or, for that matter, offer one themselves – as was the case in March. 

Though Downing Street will do its best to amplify its message ahead of Saturday’s vote, counter-briefing is already in full swing. And so Johnson finds himself in an uncannily similar position to his predecessor, Theresa May: desperately needing not only Labour MPs to pass his deal, but for them to think it is their last chance to do so. Helpful EU spin might not be enough to convince them.

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